Many people have heard the tale. One fateful day back in 1969 the Cayahoga River, located in Northeast Ohio, caught fire. The blaze swept across the river and damaged two bridges, putting the entire city of Cleveland at risk. Though this was perhaps the most substantial fire to occur on the river due to its role in sparking environmental reform, it was not actually the first time the river caught fire. In fact, the Cuyahoga River has had at least 13 reported fires prior to this most famous one in 1969.
So, why do people remember this one? To understand, it helps to have some background.
Since the Industrial Age, the Cuyahoga River has been subjected to quite a bit of pollution. As a result, the first fire actually occurred in 1868. Considering the time period, it is difficult to say how much damage this fire caused, but it was substantial enough to stay on the record. Of course, the most substantial fire took place in 1952, where the fire actually caused over $1 million in damage to various boats, a riverfront office building, and also a bridge.
With the river snaking through Cleveland, it made sense pollution would quickly become an issue, but it was almost unbelievable just how bad the pollution became. For much of the history, people were completely unable to enter the river, the entire area being filled with trash and all variety of industrial waste. The water was often described as more sludge than actual water, and people simply accepted this as a necessary part of life.
By 1969, the culture was beginning to change and people were starting to accept the environmental ideas of accountability when it came to the care of the world around us. Even though the fire only caused $50,000 in damage to a nearby railroad bridge when it occurred on June 22, 1969, it lit a figurative fire in the media as a glaring example of just how badly humans can damage their environment. For this reason, it was covered by Times magazine and the entire world began to realize just how dangerous the situation can get.
The year prior to the fire, the city of Cleveland had actually approved a $100 million cleanup bill on the river, but putting that effort into effect took time. In a somewhat ironic occurrence, this fire was a grim reminder of just how serious the matter was and helped highlight the importance of an expedient cleanup. Regardless, this cleanup effort eventually did take hold and now, over four decades later, the local citizens are proud to look upon the river and see a clean habitat teaming with fish.
Of course, the real lesson with this sort of event is people need to remember just how much they can affect their immediate environment. Dropping one candy wrapper on the floor may not do much by itself, but if everyone does, the earth will be littered with wrappers. Similarly, the Cuyahoga River could not keep up with the massive amount of pollution being dumped into it.
Have you seen the Cuyahoga River today? Are you able to recognize the progress made or do you believe there is still work that needs to be done?